Before Disney bought Lucasfilm, before the company spun the Star Wars franchise into a new series of movies, and before it built Galaxy’s Edge — a whole section of the Disney parks modeled off of the IP — there was Star Tours. The indoor ride was the first collaboration between George Lucas and Disneyland, and came about as part of a plan formed by then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner to make the parks more exciting for teens and young adults. Using a flight simulator designed to train pilots, Star Tours whisked riders on an adventure through the original Star Wars trilogy, guided by a Paul Reubens-voiced droid pilot.
Star Tours; Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, the Galaxy’s Edge attraction that puts park-goers in the cockpit of Star Wars’ most famous ship for a giant arcade game; and Rise of the Resistance, the new dark ride that contains stretches where riders wobble and shake as they fly through First Order space battles, all bring Star Wars to life for people who trek to Disney parks. But for anyone who can’t make it to Disneyland or Disney World in the immediate future, there’s another option for the Star Wars “IRL” experience: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. At least if audiences see it in the right format.
In March 2014, a company called CJ 4DPlex made a deal with the Regal Cinemas theater chain to build “4DX” theaters in selected multiplexes. The 4DX experience finds each patron seated in a chair that’s part of a four-chair unit, which is then hydraulically controlled (like a Star Tours flight simulator) to move with the pans, shakes, and tilts of the image of the 3D-projected movie. The “X” part of 4DX has to do with environmental effects: fog to haze the auditorium, large fans around the room to create winds and breezes, and misters to splash water on the audience if they are, say, watching a lightsaber battle that takes place on the wreckage of a Death Star.
While there are notable issues in the story and action of The Rise of Skywalker, the best way to see the sequel trilogy capper is 4DX, if you have a theater near you that offers it. What J.J. Abrams and company have created is a nonstop series of quests that includes space battles, Force lightning, skiffing over giant waves, and an in-atmosphere ground assault on a Star Destroyer over a misty planet. It’s like the whole movie was designed to be an amusement park ride, and your local multiplex might have the equipment to play it as one.
[Ed. note: The following contains spoilers for the first third of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.]
Here’s a taste of my experience: In the first 10 minutes of the movie, the 4DX theater chairs swooped and vibrated with Kylo Ren’s lightsaber as the new Supreme Leader cut his way through a Mustafarian village. Each time he stabbed a poor villager with his saber, the 4DX seat punched me in the back to feel the full impact. Later, my four-seat group bobbed and weaved with his TIE Fighter as he navigated the unknown regions of Exegol, and the theater filled with mist as both Kylo and the audience got their first look at the Emperor. Palpatine’s introduction, shot like a horror film, set off synchronized flashes all throughout the theater. The action cut immediately to a Millennium Falcon chase sequence. As each TIE fighter laser narrowly missed the ship, I felt blasts of air that went just past my head, as if I was the Falcon being shot at.
The 4DX theater has one option: You can turn off the water effects using a button on your chair. There’s no way around the fact that the “water effect” is just a squirt gun/mister that has been attached to the seat in front of you, pointing at your face. That being said, when Rey is attempting to reach the wreckage of the Death Star II, mist from its stormy home on a moon of Endor landed on my 3D glasses. The droplets had to be quickly wiped away, but whoever programmed the theater for that moment succeeded in making that terrifying ocean leap out of the screen (or at least, the back of the chair in front of me).
In this setting, The Rise of Skywalker feels like boarding Star Tours and staying on the ride for two and a half hours. When the final battle starts intercutting between space fighters and mysterious strobing environments for blaster and saber fights, there’s a sense of full immersion. My whole body committed to the Resistance fight. The last third of the movie opens up stereoscopically as well, with some amazing 3D work that tosses you into the screen as you cling to your chair for dear life.
I may not have liked the movie as much as some other Star Wars films, but the 4DX experience feels like part of its DNA. Watching something like John Wick 3 and getting punched in the back for each gunshot sounds horrible. Being able to feel a Star War for the first time outside a Disney theme park was actually magical.